New Horizons began its journey to Pluto on January 19, 2006. In the nearly ten years since, the NASA spacecraft has been problem free. That changed on Saturday when NASA reported New Horizons “experienced an anomaly this afternoon that led to a loss of communication with Earth.
The good news is the anomaly was short-lived. “Communication has since been re-established and the spacecraft is healthy,” says NASA.
New Horizons’ mission team went one hour and 21 minutes without communications with the spacecraft. During this period, New Horizons’ autopilot detected a problem, switched to its backup computer and entered ‘safe mode.’
Now, NASA officials are busy getting normal science operations back before New Horizons conducts its Pluto flyby. Officials expect New Horizons to be back to normal on July 7.
“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “Now – with Pluto in our sights – we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”
The biggest problem for the New Horizons’ team is the incredible distance between Earth and New Horizons. A radio signal from Earth takes 4.5 hours to reach New Horizons. Add another 4.5 hours for officials to confirm the signal was received.
New Horizons did lose some scientific observation time during the ‘anomaly,’ but the overall impact is minimal. “In terms of science, it won’t change an A-plus even into an A,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
We’ll miss out on a few extra images of a distant Pluto.
Hey, as long as New Horizons is ready for the big show – that’s all that matters. And right now, the spacecraft is looking good.
“Pluto is about the size of the United States,” according to Stern. Its moon, Charon, is even smaller. “About the size of Texas,” says Stern.
Scientists believe Pluto is made up of mostly rock and ice. Its exact make-up won’t be known until New Horizons conducts its flyby.
Did you know Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered a binary system? That’s because the barycenter (the point at which both bodies orbit) of their orbits does not lie within either body. The barycenter of the Earth and moon orbit lies within the Earth. Here’s what Pluto and Charon’s barycenter looks like. The white ‘X’ marks the barycenter point.
Pluto has long been a mystery for astronomers. Even our best telescopes have trouble piercing the great distances to study the planet. New Horizons will lift the veil off Pluto. We’ll learn more about its surface characteristics, atmosphere and much more over the next month.
I’ll keep this post updated if we learn anything else about New Horizons’ anomaly and return to regular scientific observations.